Midwestern Menagerie: Seventh-largest zoo takes visitors where the wild things are

Published on Saturday, 26 July 2014 22:41 - Written by Vanessa Pearson vpearson@tylerpaper.com

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WICHITA, Kan. — In some circles, it’s rude to stare at someone while he eats, but on a sunny June afternoon, this big guy didn’t seem to mind.

The massive male scooped up a handful of the biscuits, leisurely chewing them one at a time while lost in thought or carrying them between his lips as he walked around the grassy area.

His dark hair is streaked with silver, particularly across his back. When this silverback gorilla moves across the expansive enclosure, the powerful muscles ripple beneath the black fur. His movements are slow, deliberate, captivating.

He is one of a group of gorillas the Sedgwick County Zoo has at the Downing Gorilla Forest, which celebrated its 10-year anniversary on Wednesday.

The Great Apes can be admired in their lush outdoor enclosure with water features or an indoor space with ladders, ropes and lots of light.

The apes are just a few of the plethora of beasts roaming this Midwestern zoo.

The Kansas menagerie has lions and tigers and bears (oh my), as well as the birds and the bees.

It’s the nation’s seventh-largest zoo, at 247 acres, and it comes in at No. 13 on both number of species and number of animals with 2,199 animals from 364 species, some of which will greet you before you ever pass through the gate — geese so common throughout the region also wander the parking lot and zoo grounds.

Once inside, visitors can go any direction and see animals. The flamingos are the first site before a bridge crosses into the farm areas. Once across the bridge, visitors have several continents’ worth of farm animals — the domestic yak from Asia, dromedary camels from Africa and goats, cows and horses common in America. This is the first part of the zoo that opened in 1971.

Over the next four decades, the zoo expanded with new exhibits opening every few years. In 2009, the Slawon Family Tiger Trek opened and is home to some of the youngest residents. Now, the Jungle, which first opened in 1977, is under renovation and is scheduled to re-open next year.

Most of the zoo is divided by continent — giraffes grazing in the African Veldt, cubs prowling through the Slaw­son Family Tiger Trek in Asia, prairie dogs scampering around in the North Ameri­can area, the laughing kookaburra from Australia and the 150 birds flying free in the South American walk-through.

Throughout the zoo, visitors can get out of the sun by stepping inside an exhibit building, such as the Koch Orangutan and Chimpanzee Habitat — which has interactive exhibits about apes and man as well as indoor and outdoor spaces for the animals — the Herpetarium or the African Veldt building with its indoor spaces where the largest animals might be hiding out.

Even the outdoor exhi­bits offer respite from the Mid­western summer. Shady overhangs with windows allow glimpses into many of the exhibits, including the lions, river otters and penguins.

At the hippopotamus exhibit, visitors can go below and see the behemoths swimming. (The water is emptied twice a day, so the early day offers the best viewing opportunities.)

A tram makes stops throughout the park. It’s free and narrated and is scheduled to leave the zoo entrance every 20 minutes.

For a small fee, one may catch a boat tour that gives a different view of the zoo. It passes on the other side of several exhibits, offering an unobstructed view of some of the animals. The tour passes close to the lemur islands, where houses give a home to several different types. The boat’s captain narrates what the trip passes and offers interesting tidbits about the animals, including how the pronghorns kept climbing out of their exhibit, so the zoo installed new fencing that extends beneath the water.

Within a few years, a new elephant exhibit will be the centerpiece of the trip. The $11.5 million plan will allow the elephants to share the water with the boats as well as expand the herd from the current two females.

The Sedgwick County Zoo has plenty of opportunities to interact directly with the animals.

The petting zoo offers all ages access to goats and other farming animals. And the section is generating some buzz thanks to some small residents: a bee colony.

For $2, visitors can help feed the giraffes at scheduled times.

Zookeepers give talks throughout the day. Feeding times for many of the animals are posted.

Special learning adventures are available for all ages, such as Wee Wigglers, Cocktails with the Creatures and Senior Wednesdays, for a fee and advance registration.

The schedules are available at the gate with times and locations as well as the zoo’s website.

Visitors can bring their own lunches or order at one of the zoo’s three smaller cafes — the Big Bear Watering Hole, the Kookaburra Can­teen and the Nganda Cafďż© — or the Plaza Beastro, a larger cafeteria in the central plaza.

On the way out, visitors must pass through the gift shop, which could spell trouble for parents. But the shop has lots of items at different price points — all to do with the animals.

The Sedgwick County Zoo is open 364 days a year. (It’s closed on Sept. 6 for the annual Zoobilee fundraiser.)

Summer hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 31; winter hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and begin Nov. 1.

Admission is $13.95 for adults, $11.95 for seniors, $8.95 for children 3 to 11 and free for 2 and younger.

The zoo is Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited, so members of more than 140 member zoos and aquariums — including Caldwell Zoo — can visit at 50 percent of the regular admission cost.

Strollers and wheelchairs are available to rent in the gift shop. Call 316-266-8217 to reserve.

For more information about the Sedgwick County Zoo, visit sczoo.org or call 316-660-9453.